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While Data Is Not Destiny, Many Girls Are Falling Behind in America

Although girls in the United States have made substantial progress in the classroom and elsewhere, persistent disparities and challenges exist that could keep many girls from achieving their full potential. Black/African American and Hispanic/Latina girls are far more likely than their white counterparts to face an array of socioeconomic hurdles that range from growing up in poverty or a low-income household to dropping out of school and struggling with obesity, according to a report released today by the Girl Scout Research Institute.

The State of Girls: Unfinished Business charts the often-vast disparities that cleave the girl experience along racial and ethnic lines. For example, the report finds that poverty rates among black/African American, Hispanic/Latina, and Native American girls ages 5 to 17 are more than twice that of white and Asian American girls. In the United States today, 21 percent of all girls live in poverty, and the rates are higher for black/African American girls (37 percent), Hispanic/Latina girls (33 percent), and American Indian/Alaska Native girls (34 percent), as compared to white girls (12 percent).

“We are here to serve all girls no matter what their ethnicity or financial circumstances may be,” said Jan Barker, chief executive officer for Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan. “The generosity of our donors enables us to make some financial assistance available so that we can serve girls who want a Girl Scouting experience. We are always seeking out funding to help defray costs for financially challenged girls because we want to impact as many girls as possible.

“Research has shown that girls who are involved in Girl Scouts are more likely to graduate from college and become leaders in their communities in addition to the national and world stage.”

Indeed, The State of Girls documents the fact that girls are now more likely than boys to graduate from high school and that the teen birthrate has reached its lowest recorded levels. Yet when researchers looked at the differences among girls in terms of race and ethnicity, it became clear that white girls fare much better than black/African American and Hispanic/Latina girls.

Many girls have low reading and math proficiency, but when race is factored in, disparities in education are overwhelming. Eight out of 10 black/African American and Hispanic/Latina girls are considered “below proficient” in reading by fourth grade, whereas 5 out of 10 white girls are considered “below proficient” in reading by fourth grade.

Obesity rates are high for girls. Nearly half of black/African American (44 percent) and Hispanic/Latina (41 percent) girls ages 5 to 17 are overweight or obese, as compared to 26 percent of white girls. Girls also struggle with emotional health. Thirty-four percent of high school girls had self-reported symptoms of depression during the past year. This percentage is highest for black/African American girls. Six out of 10 black/African American girls report symptoms of depression.

“The key to keep in mind, though, is that data is not destiny,” said Judy Schoenberg, a lead researcher at the Girl Scout Research Institute. “As a society we can do something about this. At Girl Scouts of the USA, we are doing something about this, and will continue to develop programs that meet the needs of all today’s girls.”

In addition to the disparities among racial and ethnic groups, the report also documents the changing demographics among American girls. In 2000, 62 percent of all girls ages 5 to 17 were white. By 2010, that proportion had decreased to 54 percent, and it is projected to continue to decrease to 47 percent by 2030. Meanwhile, the Hispanic/Latina girl population has grown steadily. In 2000, 16 percent of the girl population ages 5 to 17 was Hispanic/Latina. In 2010, that proportion had grown to 22 percent and is projected to reach 31 percent in 2030. The current white majority is expected to be less than half of all girls (47 percent) by 2030.

“Our council is part of a girl-lead organization which is inclusive and dedicated to helping all girls reach their fullest potential,” Barker said. “Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan’s programs and services are developed to meet the ever-changing needs of the girl population.”

Written in conjunction with the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C., The State of Girls: Unfinished Business is the first report of its kind to focus exclusively on girls, and it paints a detailed picture of the social and economic lives that the 26 million American girls ages 5 to 17 lead today. The report draws its findings from analyses of large national data sets, including the U.S. Census.

Read the full report.

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